Thanksgiving Day NFL preview

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By PAT RALPH
College Contributor Network

Thanksgiving Day is an opportunity for all Americans to kick back, relax, and enjoy some great food, quality time with family and friends, and of course, great football. The NFL annually presents three games on Turkey Day, and fortunately all three games this Thursday are divisional rivalries and have huge playoff implications. To get ready for all the action on Thanksgiving, let's take a look at each of these matchups.

Chicago Bears (5-6) at Detroit Lions (7-4), 12:30 (EST) CBS

The fun begins with the traditional 12:30 game in the Motor City, as the Detroit Lions play host to the Chicago Bears in an NFC North showdown. Thursday's game will be the 75th the Lions have played on Turkey Day, every year since 1934 not including 1939-1945 due to World War II.

In their first Thanksgiving game back in 1934, the Lions lost at home by a score of 19-16 against who? Oh, the Bears. Since that initial meeting, these two divisional rivals have gone on to play a total of 13 times on Turkey Day with the Bears holding a 7-6 edge. The last time these two clashed on Thanksgiving was in 1999 when the Lions pulled out a 21-17 home win.

Now let's focus on the 2014 matchup. Thursday's game is the first of the season between these two franchises, with another showdown coming next month in the Windy City. While the Lions have been one of the best teams in the NFC so far, the Bears have been quite a disappointment.

Up until their previous two games, the Lions were rolling towards a possible NFC North division title and first-round playoff bye. However, two straight losses to a pair of 9-2 teams (Arizona Cardinals and New England Patriots) leaves the Lions right behind the red-hot Green Bay Packers in the division and in the thick of the NFC wild card race.

On the other sideline, the Bears have won two straight since snapping a three-game losing streak that prompted many people to question the leadership under franchise quarterback Jay Cutler and head coach Mark Trestman. The Bears' last two wins have come against teams who we will not be seeing in the playoffs (Minnesota Vikings and Tampa Bay Buccaneers), but both games have showed a step in the right direction for this team looking to make a late season run at the playoffs. Despite all their struggles on and off the field, the Bears sit only two games out of the playoffs.

Expect a lot of passing in this contest, as both teams rank in the top half of the NFL in total passing offenses and in the bottom third of the league in total rushing offenses. Through that, we could get to see some of the best quarterback-wide receiver combinations at their finest on Thursday. While Cutler and his two Pro Bowl wide outs Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffrey can be a dazzling sight to see, the duo of Lions' quarterback Matthew Stafford and Pro Bowl wide receiver Calvin Johnson are just as electric too.

However, playing at home and with one of the best defenses in the NFL, specifically the best run defense in the league, a second straight win on Thanksgiving could be in the cards for the Lions against a Bears team that has uncharacteristically struggled defensively this season.

Philadelphia Eagles (8-3) at Dallas Cowboys (8-3), 4:30 FOX

The other annual Thanksgiving tradition is the late afternoon contest at Jerry World, as the Dallas Cowboys welcome in the Philadelphia Eagles to decide control of first place in the NFC East.

The Cowboys have played at home on Thanksgiving every year since 1966, with only one of those being against their division rivals from Philadelphia. That one occurrence happened on Thanksgiving Day in 1989, when the Birds flew into Dallas and captured a 27-0 win over the Cowboys.

Like the early afternoon game, this is the first meeting of the season between these two with a second matchup in the City of Brotherly Love coming next month. While all three of Philadelphia's losses have come on the road, all three of Dallas' losses have come at home. Both teams are coming off wins over opponents with losing records, as the Eagles dismantled the Tennessee Titans at home and the Cowboys rallied to win against the New York Giants on the road on Sunday.

Unlike in the early game on Thanksgiving, this game will feature two of the best running backs in the NFL with LeSean McCoy and DeMarco Murray. Along with two of the best running games, this matchup will also feature two of the most criticized quarterbacks with Tony Romo and Mark Sanchez. In addition, we get the pleasure to see two elite wide receivers go head-to-head in Dez Bryant and Jeremy Maclin.

With two of the best offenses in the league getting together for a Thanksgiving feast, expect plenty of points to be put on the board. (Fun fact: Thanksgiving will be the two-year anniversary of Sanchez's infamous "butt-fumble" against New England in 2012 when he still played for the New York Jets.)

While both teams have improved defensively this season, neither are necessarily two of the strongest defensive teams in the league. Therefore, the difference in this game could be which team's defense is able to keep the other's offense off the field and the scoreboard, unless this becomes a shootout. In addition, both teams will need to keep the turnovers to a minimum and prevent the opposing offense from getting easy scoring opportunities.

Thursday's matchup between these two arch-rivals should be a dandy with the NFC East divisional lead on the line. A win will give one team three divisional wins and sole possession of first place in the NFC East, while a loss will drop the other team into the thick of the wild card race looking to make a late comeback at winning the division. Eagles-Cowboys should be nothing short of great on Thanksgiving.

Seattle Seahawks (7-4) at San Francisco 49ers (7-4), 8:30 NBC

It was in 2006 when the NFL instituted the Thanksgiving night game to cap off an entire day of football, as NFC West division rivals will clash for the first time this season since their epic showdown in last year's NFC Championship. The San Francisco 49ers, winners of three straight games, will play host at their brand new stadium to the defending Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks who are coming off a big win at home this past weekend against NFC-best Arizona.

One of the most heated rivalries in the NFL, both the Seahawks and 49ers will be looking to get a leg up on the other in the log-jammed NFC playoff race. Neither team believed they would both be looking up at someone else in the NFC West, as the Cardinals have emerged as the top team in the conference.

A second divisional win puts one of these teams in control of a wild card spot and a chance at catching Arizona in the division, while a loss all but pushes the other out of the division race and forces them to focus primarily on the wild card.

Thursday night's showdown will be nothing short of a defensive battle, as both teams rank in the top five in total defense in the NFL. Therefore, it could come down to what offense is able to make plays and not turn the ball over against the opposing defense.

Unlike in the past few years, both teams have struggled offensively this season and have lacked their overall dominance so far. But for both teams with plenty of playoff experience, the Seahawks and 49ers know they can beat anyone in the league when they are at their best -- no matter where the game is played.

However, what both teams do very well is run the football and control the line of scrimmage. The team that is able to run the football, control the line of scrimmage, and play a clean game should come out on top in this contest. While the 49ers will have the home crowd on their side, the Seahawks arguably have the biggest playmaker in running back Marshawn Lynch who ranks in the top five of running backs for rushing yards this season.

All three games should have an immense impact on the NFC playoff picture and serve as the perfect compliment to your Thanksgiving festivities this Thursday.


Pat Ralph is a junior at Villanova University. He has a passion for Philadelphia sports, especially the Phillies and Eagles, as well as Villanova Basketball and the New York Knicks. Follow him on Twitter @Pat_Ralph
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